Friday, May 8, 2009

Natural Morality: Objections Considered

Isn't utilitarian consequentialism, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, more rational than deontological natural ethics?

Why should the outcome of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number", out of infinite others, be the preferred one to any given individual?  A great many people are in situations in which optimal societal utility would mean a sub-optimal personal utility.  Why shouldn't they just continue to lobby for their government subsidies, or continue their reigns in impunity as rapacious Big Men in African "republics"?  Why should THEY follow YOUR ideal?

If social optimization is your end, be aware that your political framework is just as much the product of overcooked philosophizing as any other.  There was a time when that utilitarian-consequentialist worldview, which you may think is just the "natural way of thinking of things", was nothing more than a glimmer in the eye of Jeremy Bentham.  Via John Stuart Mill it subsequently captured the fancy of western academia, from there it permeated the ranks of opinion-molding hacks (journalists and public school teachers), and then became the received wisdom of mainstream thought.  Such is the way a great many unmoored doctrines evolve into "just plain common sense."

Who decides it's wrongful?  Isn't that just a matter of opinion?

Morality is indeed a matter of subjectivity, but not of whim.  Anyone who witnesses a killing over, for example, professional jealousy who doesn't reflexively deem that act as wrong is either rationalizing or has a clinical condition.  Anyone who witnesses a man killing another in retaliation for the rape and killing of his daughter will similarly reflexively deem that act as right.  That gut instinct is ingrained in our psyche.  Since lies within us, it is subjective.  But since it is involuntary and intrinsic, it is also natural and more "true" than any other rationalized system of right and wrong one's reason might come up with.

I just know that for morality to matter, there would need to be a God to enforce it. 

No, for morality to matter, there need only be one's own natural and involuntary sense of right and wrong, and the inner strength to follow it.  Morality wasn't invented by organized religion.  Many precepts of religion are mere reflections of a powerful sense of right and wrong that was written in our hearts long before the idea of a god was stamped in our brains.

I don't rely on my emotions to make all my decisions for me.

Yes you do.  You use your reason to decide the means; but your emotions decide the ultimate ends of all your decisions for you.  How else could it be?  You use your reason to discern "I want A because it will get me B" and "I want B because it will get me C".  But when this process comes down to your ultimate goals, of what use is your reason?  Is your reason going to help you decide, "I want this ultimate goal, because it will get me this other thing"?  Then it's not an ultimate goal.  Like David Hume said, reason is the slave of the passions.  Some passions are less hot than others; but they are passions nonetheless.  I'll take your word for it that you are as conscience-free as you profess (I don't know, maybe you have Aspberger's, like the other moral nihilist I debated here).  But most people do have consciences.  The moral choices those people make are indeed ultimately motivated by a passion.  However, your own striving for "effectiveness" is just as much ultimately motivated by a passion as its ultimate end: a primal urge for self-preservation and self-promotion.

This proves nothing but that people have a psychological tendency to moralize

That these moral urges are the results of an inherent tendency is what makes them natural in the Aristotelean sense.  Therefore, the rights conferred in response to these urges in the minds of the people who feel these urges are natural rights.

These "rights" aren't objectively 'true' or 'binding'.

It is "binding" to those who heed the natural moral urges.  It is not effectively binding to those who do not.  When A says B ought not to brutalize C, of course it's a subjective statement.  Morality, like all values, arises subjectively, but can be objectively observed.  The statement, "B is evil" of course is not true on a universal materialist level.  He is not "evil" to a banana slug or to a lump of coal or to you.  Natural rights are indeed subjective; that does not make them unnatural, non-rights, or unreal.

So this is basically an appeal to emotions .

I am completely aware and completely comfortable with my grounding morality in the emotions.  David Hume, to my mind, proved that morality can only have its ultimate source in primary passions, and not in reason...

“This is the second part of our argument; and if it can be made evident, we may conclude, that morality is not an object of reason. But can there be any difficulty in proving, that vice and virtue are not matters of fact, whose existence we can infer by reason? Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but `tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.”

That morality is grounded in emotion does not make it any less important, real, or natural.  That is because we humans have an inborn tendency toward certain common moral urges.  So I with my natural moral urges can talk meaningfully to another human who, by virtue of being human (and not having Aspberger's), has similar urges.  That is what people without neurological disorders do when they talk to each other about natural rights.

Having a 'moral' sense - a sense that certain things are socially/interpersonally acceptable - is not 'irrational'.  It seems to be a fact of biology.  But the sorts of statements these feelings motivate people to make - saying, for example, "You should not do that" are literally false.  And you can not find coherent fault with someone for rejecting the values which underly the judgement.  Morality literally has no claim on anyone who disagrees with you - and since categorical imperatives are fundamentally impossible, all morality (libertarian or otherwise) at best amounts to fiction or propaganda.

That such statements are subjective does not make them false: in fact it is not even appropriate to ask whether they are true or false, anymore than asking if, "that puppy is cuter than the other one" is objectively true or false.  When most people say, "you should not do that", they basically mean, "I feel that what you're doing is wrong," not "that action is objectively, and somehow cosmically, wrong".  Yes, a good number of libertarians try to make out natural rights to be Kantian categorical imperatives; and I agree with you that they are incorrect in that.  But to dismiss all moral judgments as based on Kantian nonsense is ridiculous.

even though moral feelings are real, they are intrinsically personal feelings among specific people.  And it is simply not plausible to state that all people having a moral feeling must share the same basic principles or conclusions.  Not on sheer logic, and certainly not empirically.  Which means that whatever is wrong with communists consequentially, their moral theory is not any more or less 'true' than the libertarian one.

Almost everybody feels that murder, rape, plunder, and enslavement are wrong: that much is empirically clear.  And each one of those mental concepts entails a sense of property rights.  Those who participate in or support murder, rape, plunder, and enslavement either are abnormal or bury those feelings for the sake of their own aggrandizement.  Communists fit the latter category.

Values entailing some sense of liberty, property, equality, fairness are basically normal among human beings, but their proportions and entailments vary greatly.  And you can not rationally call this 'wrong' - a freakish idolatry of property or equality is not implied by having an intrinsic sense that these values are valuable.

Yes, I can, because "wrong" is subjective.  I am sincerely and spontaneously outraged when I think about seizures of property.  Therefore, I say that it is wrong.  A communist may say the same about me holding private property.  But I strongly suspect he would be posturing when doing so.  Revulsion toward plunder is natural and near-universal.  Revulsion toward private property is neither, and is generally only to  be found among the theory class who would personally benefit from their theories taking hold.

Also, notice that almost everybody feels that murder in the name of 'your country' is thoroughly maybe it is ?

Humans shove aside their moral code when in situations of extremity ("lifeboat situations"): this is not proof that the moral code does not exist, only that people will act immorally (commit "necessary evils") in conditions of extremity.

And almost everybody feels killing innocents in war is a necessary evil.  This is one of the innumerable examples of the state having convinced most of humanity (through public school and mainstream media indoctrination) that society is in a perpetual "lifeboat situation" in which a great many "necessary evils" must be committed by the state, else the "lifeboat" of society will keel over and everybody will drown.  This is a lie.  More consistent adherence to morality would emerge should this lie be exposed.


Effectiveness is not a question of passions.  It is a question of "what is ultimately going to happen here and is this in my interest?" 

How do you ultimately arrive at what is in your interest?  What decides the end, the progress toward which is your very metric of effectiveness?  Is it reason?  Again, reason can have nothing to say about ultimate ends.  If your ultimate interest, the progress toward which you use as your metric of effectiveness, is self-preservation, then it is your passions that dictated that.  You're psyche didn't conclude with reasoning, "My ultimate interest is self-preservation, BECAUSE of X."  That would be a contradiction, since the "because of X" implies that "X" is your ultimate interest.  You still seem to think that only hot passions qualify as passions.  Passions are the unreasoned ultimate ends which, of logical necessity, MUST be the motivation of every reasoning act we do.

You say in another post that you would strangle another man if you reasoned that was necessary for your interest.  And I'm sure you would do so with calm deliberation.  But let's follow the causal path of your motivation:  you kill A, because if you don't he might kill you.  That part uses reason.  It is imperative that you not let him kill you, because that would mean your death.  That part uses reason.  You don't want to die, because that would mean oblivion.  That part uses reason.  You don't want oblivion because...  because why?  No "because".  You just DON'T.  That part of you that determines "avoidance of oblivion" as your ultimate end is not reason, since there's no "because" or "therefore" involved.  That part is a passion: an unrationalized primal urge.



But why make a primal urge like morals and emotions the foundation of your personal philosophy?  Why not make it the higher level of dispassionate reasoning only humans are capable of.

I'm interested in what's true about human nature, not inventing personal philosophies that please me.


Just because my reasoning at some level is based on an instinct does not mean I'm better off not reasoning at all.

I'm not advocating rampant impulsiveness.  Your confusing the distinction between passion and reason with the distinction between low time preference and high time preference (which you'll learn about in your forthcoming AE studies).  The cool-headed long-term investor is no less ultimately impelled by his passions than the spendthrift hedonist.  The difference is that the former is impelled more strongly by urges to provide for the future: but it is still an urge that impels him.  Longer-term investment generally necessitates longer chains of reasoning.  But that does NOT mean he reasons for the sake of reasoning.  His reasoning is still motivated entirely by his passions: those passions just have longer-term objects.


It's only because I try to reason things out that I'm able to control myself.

What might keep you from stealing candy from a baby?  "Reasoning things out"?  How does that come about?  You feel an urge to snatch the candy.  But then you reason, "If I do so, I (a) might be struck by the mother's purse, (b) be seen by my colleagues who will then ostracize me, or (c) be pestered by one of those pesty irrational feelings of guilt that I haven't quite purged yet."  Those are statements of fact which your reasoning power is able to glean.  But ultimately why do you refrain from candy-theft in response to them?  If (a) does the trick, ultimately that stems from an unreasoned urge for self-preservation.  If (b), ultimately that stems from an unreasoned urge for self-promotion.  If (c), ultimately that stems from an unreasoned urge for doing right by others.

Self-restraint, like all acts (whether of commission or omission), may utilize reason, but they are ultimately impelled by the passions.




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